Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson takes on Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson during the teams' September meeting.
Patrick Peterson is not perfect. That does not mean he isn't an excellent cornerback. It does not mean he isn't one of the best in the NFL.
"People caught passes on Deion Sanders, they caught passes on Rod Woodson, they caught passes on Mel Blount," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said when discussing his All-Pro teammate. "I could go on and on throughout history, it has happened. You are going to get beat. It's how you respond the next play."
In three seasons, Peterson has had times when he has gotten beat. But he has also risen to the top of the cornerback profession. He was named first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press. He will be in his third Pro Bowl in as many seasons, the last two coming for his work on defense. The terms "elite" and "shutdown corner" are thrown around in his midst, even if they can be misleading in this day and age of pass-happy offenses and rules to accommodate them.
There is little question Peterson is one of the best.
"Who would you put ahead of him?" said Aaron Schatz of FootballOutsiders.com, who also writes for espn.com. "(Tampa Bay's Darrelle)
Revis is not healthy, so I don't know if I put Revis ahead of him right now. (Cleveland's Joe) Haden? I might put Haden even with him, but not ahead of him. The only guy I would clearly put ahead of him at this point – I think – is (Seattle's Richard) Sherman. But even Sherman is allowed to do what he does in part because he has (All-Pro safety) Earl Thomas (behind him)."
The metrics, whether by FO or the similarly themed ProFootballFocus.com, grade Peterson out as very good. But as Schatz points out, any statistical measure has its limitations, especially in football where each individual's play is so much more intertwined with teammates than most sports.
PFF listed Peterson on their second team All-Pro – along with Sherman – behind Miami's Brent Grimes and Revis. PFF had Peterson's overall negatively graded in four of 16 games.
"He's one of the few cornerbacks who actually takes a team's top receiver and follows them all game long," PFF's Khaled Elsayed said. "In that respect you can't compare his year to that of Sherman, Revis, (Tennessee's Alterraun) Verner or Grimes for example, because the job he has to is so much harder."
That is a point echoed by Schatz, who noted his site is still in the process of grading the 2013 cornerback play. Most teams keep cornerbacks on one side of the field or the other. Peterson has been trailing the opponent's No. 1 receiver for a couple of seasons now. In 2012, the Cardinals were 29th in the league in keeping cornerbacks on the same side, a trend that didn't change in 2013.
When Peterson is moving, it's to handle a Calvin Johnson, or an Andre Johnson, or Michael Crabtree or DeSean Jackson. FO has a ranking through their proprietary formula DVOA (which accounts for offenses/defenses the team is going against, as well as down and distance) on how each team covers the opposing team's No. 1 receiver, No. 2 receiver, other receivers, tight ends and running backs.
Ranked at the top of the list this season in covering the opposing No. 1, in terms of efficiency per pass, was the Cardinals.
"And more than any other team, they use a specific guy to cover the No. 1 receiver," Schatz said. "This is what the Jets looked like (statistically) in Revis' best years. I think this is a pretty sweet indication that Peterson is a top 10 or top five corner."
What stats can't tell is how much an opposing offense doesn't throw Peterson's way in the first place because of his presence. Tennessee's Kendall Wright had a very good day against Peterson – even coach Bruce Arians called that Peterson's worst game – and Elsayed thinks Peterson needs to cut down on the touchdowns allowed (PFF had Peterson giving up seven.)
But, Elsayed said, "he's traded blows with a lot of top receivers and if not shut them down completely, certainly slowed them down and negated their impact compared to what you're used to seeing out of them."
Peterson had three interceptions this season, down from seven in 2012. But his abilities allow defensive coordinator Todd Bowles flexibility to leave Peterson on an island and scheme in different ways with the rest of his players.
"Few guys even attempt to do what (Peterson) is doing and even fewer have as much success as him," Elsayed added. "The question is, what do you expect? If (some are) expecting a kind of Revis 2009 season where he's legitimately shutting everyone down they just need to temper their expectations because seasons like that are extremely rare for a reason."
One of Peterson's go-to quotes is that he is always trying to get better, so his play on defense should continue to improve. Critics have rightfully pointed out his struggles in the punt return game since his rookie season, but those problems have nothing to do with his play at cornerback.
"I don't play this position to be second, I play to be the best in the game," Peterson said earlier this season. "That's not being arrogant. That's not being cocky. I feel like I have done enough things in my young career to be considered the best.
"Am I the best to some people? Maybe not. But in my eyes I feel like I am the best cornerback in the league."